A Visit to Crazy Horse Memorial Park in South Dakota

Chuck enjoys traveling and over the years has had the opportunity to visit many fascinating places in the U.S. and the world.

Crazy Horse being sculpted out of Thunderhead Mountain at the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota.

Crazy Horse being sculpted out of Thunderhead Mountain at the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota.

A 3-Week Western Road Trip

As summer was ending a couple of years ago, my wife and I decided it was time to take a trip. We had taken a Caribbean cruise that spring and were looking for something less expensive for an end-of-summer trip.

We decided to take a three-week road trip starting in mid-August. Our initial destination was to be Glacier National Park in Montana. Stops at Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks were added before the start of the vacation, but as with most of our road trips, these three places were basically checkpoints in an overall trip plan that could vary greatly as we traveled. Sure enough, our first change of plans occured as we left Glacier.

My wife and car dwarfed in the midst of the Great Plains in Wyoming.

My wife and car dwarfed in the midst of the Great Plains in Wyoming.

Change of Plans: A Stop at Mt. Rushmore

As we were traveling along a long and boring stretch of road en route to Yellowstone from Glacier, my wife busied herself checking Facebook. Turning to me, she said that one of her Facebook friends had posted a comment stating that she and her husband had just made reservations to visit Mount Rushmore. While my wife had heard of Mt. Rushmore, she was not sure where it was. I told her that it was in South Dakota, to which she asked “how far is it?” My reply was “not that far.”

"Not that far" is relative, as Mt. Rushmore was 600 miles or more from Grand Teton National Park, which is located in northwestern Wyoming. However, the states in the West are large and lightly populated, and we are used to traveling long distances. Besides, we were just approaching the end of our first week and still had two full weeks ahead of us. So, following four days in Yellowstone and a day and a half in Grand Teton, we headed east to Mount Rushmore.

A plaster scale model depicting what the Crazy Horse sculpture on Thunderhead Mountain will look like when finished.

A plaster scale model depicting what the Crazy Horse sculpture on Thunderhead Mountain will look like when finished.

I Had a Second Destination in Mind

While my wife was now focused on Mount Rushmore, I had another nearby destination in mind.

Years ago while I was still in high school, I read a magazine article about a fellow in South Dakota who was in the process of carving a huge statute of the Oglala Sioux Chief, Crazy Horse, on the side of a mountain near Mount Rushmore. A quick check of Google Maps showed that our route would pass the Crazy Horse Memorial on our way to Mount Rushmore.

Entrance to Crazy Horse Memorial

Entrance to Crazy Horse Memorial

Origins of the Crazy Horse Memorial

The Crazy Horse Memorial—located next to the small town of Crazy Horse, South Dakota—is about a half-hour drive southwest of Mt. Rushmore, but since it was on the way, it was easy to convince my wife to make a quick stop there. Even though the "quick visit" turned out to last all afternoon, my wife ended up enjoying it as much as I did.

The idea for the Crazy Horse Memorial was partly a reaction against the decision not to include a famous Sioux among the sculptures on Mount Rushmore. After all, Mount Rushmore is located on lands occupied by the Sioux for generations before the arrival of Americans—who twice made treaties guaranteeing the land to the Sioux in perpetuity only to abandon those treaties shortly after their signing.

Origins of Mount Rushmore

The idea for the sculptures on Mt. Rushmore originated in the early 1920s when the then South Dakota State Historian, Doane Robinson, was looking for a way to attract tourists to South Dakota.

Construction on the project started on October 4, 1927 and was completed on October 31, 1941. While the actual work on the monument took six and a half years, delays in Congressional approval of funding for the various stages of the project resulted in work being halted between completion of one stage and the beginning of the next. The total cost of the project came to $989,992.32.

No Time or Money to Add Another Head

By the fall of 1939, the construction of Mount Rushmore was nearing completion and, while there was room for a fifth sculpture (and many more candidates to choose from), with the ongoing Depression and a looming war on the horizon, Congress was not about to approve funds for an additional sculpture.

Sioux Chief Henry Standing Bear was a major force behind the movement to create the Crazy Horse Memorial.

Sioux Chief Henry Standing Bear was a major force behind the movement to create the Crazy Horse Memorial.

The Sioux Seek a Monument of Their Own

Chief Henry Standing Bear and his older brother Luther Standing Bear were the major force working to get Crazy Horse added to Mount Rushmore and, when that effort failed, became the force behind the creation of the Crazy Horse Memorial.

In the fall of 1939, Henry Standing Bear wrote to both Gutzon Borglum, the artist in charge of the Mt. Rushmore project, and Borglum’s assistant, Korczak Ziolkowski, seeking their help in creating a similar memorial to Crazy Horse. Borglum never answered, but Ziolkowski, a young Boston-born sculptor on the rise, did. World War II interrupted their plans, but following the war, both got down to business.

Chief Henry Standing Bear's Agreement

Chief Henry Standing Bear negotiated an agreement with the U.S. government to trade his personal land to the Department of the Interior in exchange for the rights to build the Crazy Horse Memorial on land where Thunderhead Mountain stood. When completed, the memorial will be the largest carved mountain sculpture in the world.

Beyond the modest piece of land that Standing Bear traded for Thunderhead Mountain and the land on which it sits, the impoverished Indigenous peoples lacked the funds necessary to build the memorial. According to some, the U.S. Government offered Ziolkowski $10 million dollars to do the project. Ziolkowski turned the offer down choosing instead to rely on private donations and revenue from entrance fees and gift shop fees.

Photo of late Korczak Ziolkowski (Sept. 6, 1908–Oct. 20, 1982), the sculptor and driving force behind the Crazy Horse Memorial project.

Photo of late Korczak Ziolkowski (Sept. 6, 1908–Oct. 20, 1982), the sculptor and driving force behind the Crazy Horse Memorial project.

Korczak Ziolkowski's Dream

Korczak Ziolkowski threw himself into the Crazy Horse Memorial project, envisioning not only the huge Crazy Horse sculpture but also a Native American Cultural Center and Museum along with an Indian University.

While the construction of the sculpture consumed most of Ziolkowski’s time and funds, the Cultural Center has slowly been accumulating a large and growing body of materials, including photos and pictures of Sioux chiefs. Ironically, Crazy Horse isn’t included, due to his refusal throughout his life to allow photographs, paintings or sketches of him since he believed that such images would result in the loss of his spirit.

The Memorial Was His Highest Priority

Ziolkowski devoted practically every day of his life from the time he started the project until his death in 1982 working on the memorial. His first wife left him, and when he married his second wife, he made it clear before the marriage that the Crazy Horse project came first in his life while she would forever be second. The same went for his children.

However, his second wife, Ruth Ross Ziolkowski (1926–2014), became as wrapped up in the project as her husband. Following Korczak’s death, Ruth took over and continued his legacy, as have their children and grandchildren since Ruth’s death in 2014.

Korczak Ziolkowski working on the head of Crazy Horse painted by Dean Nauman. Korczak made a frame but only framed half, with the other half to be added when the memorial is finished.

Korczak Ziolkowski working on the head of Crazy Horse painted by Dean Nauman. Korczak made a frame but only framed half, with the other half to be added when the memorial is finished.

About Crazy Horse, Sioux Leader and Legend

According to History.com and other sources, Crazy Horse was born in a Sioux village in the Black Hills area of South Dakota in about 1841. His father was a shaman or holy man in the Oglala Sioux tribe and his mother was a member of a neighboring Brule Sioux tribe. His father's name was Crazy Horse. In the tradition at that time, young boys were given a temporary descriptive name until they reached adulthood and earned an adult name. In this case, the young boy was known as Curly Hair due to his lighter complexion and curly hair.

Curly Hair Becomes Crazy Horse

In 1858, following his exploits as a teenager in a battle against neighboring Arapaho warriors, the 17-year-old Curly Hair’s father gave his name, Crazy Horse, to his son and took the name Worm for himself.

The 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty

In 1868, Crazy Horse, an upcoming leader in his tribe, joined with leaders of his and other tribes residing in what is now the northern Great Plains area of the United States, for a peace conference with the United States at Fort Laramie in Wyoming. The objective of the meeting was to sort out land claims and the increasing fighting over these claims.

For its part, the United States promised to halt the growing encroachment on Indigenous lands by prospectors and settlers (though it failed to make good on that promise). In return, the Indigenous peoples promised to stop attacking settlers in the lands south of the Black Hills as well as each tribe respecting the lands of the others and allowing safe passage for Americans heading for the Oregon Territory on the coast.

Crazy Horse didn’t seem to have a problem with agreeing not to attack settlers in the area south of the Black Hills and appears to have been satisfied with the U.S. Government’s promise to recognize the lands reserved for the tribes (which encompassed all or most of his tribe’s traditional ancestral lands). He appears to have been especially pleased with the Government’s promise to both recognize the tribes’ rights to their lands in perpetuity as well as arrest and prosecute Americans who violated the terms of the treaty.

Crazy Horse Refuses to Sign

However, Crazy Horse didn’t join the other leaders in signing the treaty. He wanted to be free to continue to conduct raids against the other neighboring tribes who were also signatories to the treaty. In this, Crazy Horse demonstrated his integrity by refusing to sign a treaty he had no intention of adhering to, while the others—including the U.S.—agreed to the document with little or no intention of actually honoring it.

Crazy Horse later came to distrust the United States which, like the other tribes who signed the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty and then continued to attack and raid each other, did very little to halt the flow of settlers into the lands the treaty had supposedly returned to the Sioux in perpetuity.

General Custer on horseback with his U.S. Army troops in battle with Lakota Sioux, Crow, Northern, and Cheyenne, on the Little Bighorn Battlefield, June 25, 1876.

General Custer on horseback with his U.S. Army troops in battle with Lakota Sioux, Crow, Northern, and Cheyenne, on the Little Bighorn Battlefield, June 25, 1876.

The Great Sioux War of 1876–77

Throughout history, nations and tribes have continually alternated between fighting, trading and allying with each other against common enemies. The Indigenous peoples of the plains were no exception, as many of the tribes who had signed the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 continued raiding and fighting with each other.

However, a mere eight years later, in 1876, many found themselves joined together with Crazy Horse and other leaders fighting against General Custer and his troops at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

A Winter of Starvation and Raids

The year 1876–77 has become known for the Great Sioux War, which was a part of a longer conflict between the U.S. Cavalry and the Indigenous peoples of the Great Plains and Canadian Prairies. Following the battle at the Little Bighorn, Crazy Horse and others returned to their villages while the U.S. Army continued a campaign of attrition against them. While many villages struggled to survive the winter following the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Crazy Horse and the small band he was leading spent the winter attacking settlements infringing on lands previously given to the Sioux.

Colonel Nelson Miles pursued Crazy Horse and his band until the onset of winter when cold weather forced both to begin negotiations, which were made difficult by language and trust issues on both sides.

Crazy Horse Is Tricked and Killed

Crazy Horse eventually did meet with representatives of Colonel Miles at Ft Robinson, located in present-day Nebraska, but ended up being escorted to a jail cell instead of to Colonel Miles.

When Crazy Horse started to resist, an old friend, Little Big Man (who now worked for the Army) grabbed him. As Little Big Man was trying to restrain him, Crazy Horse pulled out a knife. Upon seeing the knife, one of the soldiers escorting Crazy Horse to a cell lunged at him with a bayonet to prevent Crazy Horse from stabbing Little Big Man.

With his abdomen and kidneys pierced by the bayonet, Crazy Horse was carried to a vacant office where he refused a cot that was offered and chose to lay on the floor. His father was allowed to see him.

Later that night, September 6, 1877, the 35-year-old Crazy Horse died. His body was taken away by some fellow Sioux and, in accordance with Crazy Horse’s wishes, was buried in an unmarked grave, the location of which remains unknown to this day.

Reproduction of a photograph of General George A. Custer, originally taken in 1865 by Mathew Brady. Courtesy of the National Park Service, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

Reproduction of a photograph of General George A. Custer, originally taken in 1865 by Mathew Brady. Courtesy of the National Park Service, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

Crazy Horse’s Opponent, General Custer

Despite his other accomplishments, Crazy Horse’s fame is the result of the fact that he was one of the leading war chiefs in the June 25–26, 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, which was the worst and most widely publicized defeat suffered by the U.S. Army in its efforts to pacify the Great Plains. Custer met an allied effort made up of Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors, with the Sioux being the largest contingent. The battle took place on lands belonging to the Crow tribe—who were not only traditional enemies of the Sioux but also supported the U.S. Army.

Custer's Last Stand

Crazy Horse’s opponent in the battle, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, was new to warfare on the Great Plains. He made the decision to attack a camp housing a large number of Indigenous forces who had recently moved into the area. Without waiting for reinforcements, Custer attacked; in the ensuing battle, he and all his men were annihilated.

History of Custer's Rise and Fall

Despite his fatal mistake in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer had proven himself to be a very capable and very brave leader in the Civil War and had quickly risen to the rank of Major General. Unlike most other generals who directed their troops in battle from the rear, Custer was out front with his cavalry troops charging behind him into the battle.

But once the Civil War ended, there was no longer a need for a large military force. Many troops who had enlisted or were drafted for the war willingly accepted discharge, as they had only been in the military due to the war. However, others like Custer liked military life and, in the case of many high-ranking officers, enjoyed a social and economic status much higher than they would face in civilian life (Custer’s previous job had been as a school teacher). In order to remain in the military, Custer had to fall back to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and accept a post on the western frontier.

Both Crazy Horse and Custer were brave warriors. Both were born and died within a year of each other, with Crazy Horse living from 1840 to 1877 and Custer from 1839 to 1876. Like Crazy Horse, he is known mainly for his role in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, with his other remarkable achievements relegated to footnotes.

Chief Standing Bear (possibly Luther Standing Bear) full-length portrait, standing, facing slightly left, holding bow and arrows.

Chief Standing Bear (possibly Luther Standing Bear) full-length portrait, standing, facing slightly left, holding bow and arrows.

Standing Bear and Ziolkowski Declined Government Funding

As a result of his early meetings and planning with Henry Standing Bear and other Sioux leaders, Ziolkowski appears to have become obsessed with the need to honor and preserve the memory of Crazy Horse along with the history and culture of the Indigenous peoples of North America.

Ziolkowski’s decision to decline the government’s offer of $10 million to undertake the project made sense, as refusing government involvement meant that he was free of hassles with politicians and bureaucrats. But it was also a gamble, especially given that other than Chief Standing Bear’s land (which Standing Bear had traded for the rights to the Thunder Mountain site), the Sioux and other tribes lacked the financial resources needed for the project.

A Project Funded by Admission Fees and Donations

However, there are many people who, like Korczak Ziolkowski, have come to admire both Crazy Horse and the Indigenous history and culture of North America and have been willing to donate money and other resources to the project.

This has turned out to be considerably more than the government’s offer and has come without the bureaucratic strings, micromanagement and other interference that accompanies government involvement in projects.

People ask when the Crazy Horse Memorial will be completed, and the answer remains “who knows?” Throughout the project, Ziolkowski constantly reminded his family and workers to go slowly and do it right, as his goal seemed to be perfection rather than meeting a deadline. Korczak Ziolkowski was a true artist, as the sculptures on display at the Crazy Horse Memorial clearly show.

David Humphreys Miller sketching the portrait of Joseph White Co Bull in front of the cabin of Charlie Thunder Bull (to left of Miller) at Oglala, South Dakota in 1939.

David Humphreys Miller sketching the portrait of Joseph White Co Bull in front of the cabin of Charlie Thunder Bull (to left of Miller) at Oglala, South Dakota in 1939.

Crazy Horse Museum and Cultural Center

As mentioned above, the museum and cultural center are a big part of the Crazy Horse Memorial’s attraction, housing some of Ziolkowski's other sculptures and artworks and a growing collection of Indigenous materials and artifacts.

David Humphreys Miller

A major part of the collection consists of David Humphreys Miller’s "Custer’s Survivors" collection of paintings.

Born into a family of artists, Miller (1918–92) became interested in the Battle of the Little Bighorn and at the age of 16 in 1930, and with his parent’s permission left his family in Ohio and headed to Indian reservations in the West with the goal of finding and painting portraits of all the remaining survivors of the battle of the Little Bighorn.

Many of these aging warriors, like Crazy Horse, had refused to pose for pictures for fear of losing their spirit. However, Miller gained their trust by living among them and learning their history, culture and native language (by the end of his project, he had learned 14 native languages).

Since the survivors had ended up on a number of different reservations, Miller spent years traveling around the West finding survivors and living on the reservation with them. The result was 72 portraits of the last native survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which are now on display at the Crazy Horse Memorial.

Photo of the Crazy Horse Memorial taken from the visitor's center parking lot.

Photo of the Crazy Horse Memorial taken from the visitor's center parking lot.

Visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial

The Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation is a private non-profit that owns and manages the memorial. Since it is a private foundation, national park and state park passes cannot be used to visit.

Fees vary depending upon the season, with regular admission fees being $3 to $6 lower in the October–May winter season than in the June–October summer season. The fee for my wife and I came to $30. If there had been additional people besides the two of us, the fee would have been $35, and if only one of us had visited it would have dropped to $15. You can also pre-book your tickets online.

The memorial is generally open seven days a week, year-round. However, days and times may vary depending upon the season and the weather. There are also some special evening events.

Note: There was no charge for parking, but we also paid $4.00 each for the optional bus tour to the base of the memorial.

An Ongoing Project

While the Crazy Horse sculpture is less than halfway finished, there is still much to see in the museum and on the grounds.

After Korczak’s death in 1982, his wife Ruth took over as head of the foundation that operates the memorial. While Korczak had been focusing on the horse’s head, Ruth decided to focus current efforts on Crazy Horse’s face.

Not being as large and complex as the horse's head, it took less time to complete and also put the focus on Crazy Horse himself, helping to attract more tourists whose admission fees help to pay the continuing costs of the project.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Chuck Nugent


Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on March 13, 2021:

Greg Cain - Thanks for your comments and I am glad you enjoyed the article. I have been an admirer of Crazy Horse for years but as a result of our visit to the monument and research I did for the article have learned more about him. I was also in the Air Force - actually the Wisconsin Air National Guard which I served with in the early 1970s as a navigator on board a KC-97 air refueling plane. During the Vietnam war the unit I was in along with other ANG refueling units did two week rotations to Rhine-Main AFB in Germany where handled the refueling missions for a couple of squadrons of KC-135s which had been deployed to Okinawa to do refueling missions off the coast of Vietnam. Years later I met and married a woman from Russia whose father turned out to have been a Major in the Soviet AF who flew MiGs from a base in Poland about 200 miles from Rhein-Main AFB. Fortunately I was able to keep our pilot on our side of the Iron Curtain and my future father-in law stayed on his side. He is a great guy and we get along great now but I don't think he would have taken kindly to me back in the 1970s if I had met and dated his daughter then.

Thanks again for you comments.

greg cain from Moscow, Idaho, USA on March 10, 2021:

Chuck - I was a military brat, then joined myself and served for 30 years. I lived in South Dakota from 1976-1984, then again from '88-'97, and then one more time from 2001-2002. Idaho is my home now, but South Dakota is where I'm from. That said, I really enjoyed learning more about Crazy Horse monument from your article. The history in the Black Hills is rich, and this is just one small--though very significant--piece of it. I have visited Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse many, many times, and even flew by them on a regular basis when I was stationed at Ellsworth AFB just down the road. I know more about all of it now thanks to your work. Thanks for sharing it. I hope we get to see the sculpture completed in our lifetime.

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on March 10, 2021:

Linda - thanks for your comments. I'm glad you enjoy my articles. I enjoy both the travel and research. I am hoping to get back to writing more but have been very busy this past year helping out with my two grandchildren and now am about to have a third this week. However, as I mentioned in my comments to Bill De Giulio above, he will be our daughter's first and she and her husband live in the Seattle area. We have plane reservations for next week but I am sure that this is just the first of many as she is our only daughter and she and my wife are very close. Thanks again for commenting.

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on March 10, 2021:

Kenna - thanks for your comments. I'm glad you enjoyed the article. I agree with you that we should have treated the Native Americans better especially in the West where we were constantly at war with them from after the Civil War until the end of the 19th century. I remember running across an article a couple of years ago by a couple of history professors explaining why there was more warfare in the West than in the East. According to them conflicts on the frontier in the East were usually over land disputes and they were dealt with by colonial or (after the Revolution) by state militias which meant that the cost of the conflicts were borne by the local residents who had to both take time away from work, etc. to go off and fight as well as foot associated bills with local taxes. After the Civil War there were a lot of veterans who wanted to remain in the military which meant that we would have a large Army which needed a war to justify the expense of such an army. Also the Federal Army, unlike state militias (National Guard) was funded by Federal Taxes (mostly tariffs) and not local taxes. According to the authors, local interests (settlers, prospectors, railroads, etc) had little interest in negotiating and honoring treaties to settle disputes. The Army also lacked incentives to seek peace as they benefited from fighting and herding tribes onto reservations and keeping them there. I didn't save a copy of the article and wasn't able, in the time available, to track it down again but it did offer a different perspective and some food for thought.

Thanks again for your comments

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on March 10, 2021:

Thanks Bill I'm glad you enjoyed the Hub and sorry you missed the memorial on you trip across the country, I was fortunate to be able to travel a lot when I was young and single but work and children limited the time and money available to travel. However, once our four children were grown and on their own along with both of us reaching the point where we had ore vacation time we started traveling again. I'm now retired and my wife has a little over a month's worth of vacation each year so we have been able to travel a lot in the past few years as I also had reached generous vacation time before retiring and quite a bit since retiring. Our travels are about to take a different turn as, unlike the 2 grandchildren we currently have living a few blocks away from us, our daughter is about to give birth any day now to our new grandson in the Seattle area. So I'm sure we will doing a lot of touring in the Pacific Northwest as a result. We already have plane reservations a week from now to go up and greet him.

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on March 10, 2021:

Peggy - I am glad you enjoyed the Hub and thanks for your comments.

It will take a while to finish so long as the family continues to follow Korezak Ziokowski's command to "Go slowly so you do it right" it will be some time before it is finished. It is not the only slow project in history - it took the builders of Notre Dame Cathedral 182 to complete that job. Thanks again for your comments.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on March 09, 2021:

I enjoy learning about United States history and geography by reading your articles. Thank you for sharing the detailed information.

Kenna McHugh from Northern California on March 09, 2021:

Chuck, you about cover it all, impressive! I've always been fascinated by Little Big Horn and Crazy Horse. I feel for the Native Americans and wish we had treated them fairly. You're wife sounds like a fun traveling companion.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on March 09, 2021:

What a great road trip, Chuck. In the mid-80s I drove through the area and stopped at Mount Rushmore. Unfortunately I did not stop at the Crazy Horse Memorial, which back then definitely wasn’t as far along as it is today. I have always regretted not stopping, but will hopefully get there in the future. At the time I was in the process of moving from California back to Connecticut. Once I retire we definitely want to do a similar multi-week road trip out west, when time isn’t rushed. Really enjoyed your trek, hope all is well.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 09, 2021:

We saw the beginnings of the carving back in the 1950s when we visited Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. Judging from your photo, it has come a long way but still has a long way before it will ever be finished. I enjoyed reading your history of Crazy Horse and the family of carvers.

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